“Spontaneity” and social change | reflections on Gramsci pt.1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci.  I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.

Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest.  Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions.  What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change.  The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.

The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too.  The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus.  I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.).  The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation.  The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).”  The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”

I was surprised then to learn later that Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights leaders had intentionally created and spread this myth of spontaneity.  Sociologist Francesca Polletta discusses this in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics:

For American activists during much of the last century, one of the thorniest challenges was to avoid charges of communist influence.  Representing protest as homegrown and spur-of-the-moment was a way to deflect claims that it was controlled by “outsiders,” which meant Communists.  In the Tallahassee, Florida, sit-in campaign, adult leaders who helped plan the sit-ins denied their own involvement for that very reason.  Rosa Park’s activism before the Montgomery bus boycott included a stint at the Highlander Folk School, a radical education center in Tennessee that was branded a “communist training school” soon after Parks’s visit.  This was reason enough for Montgomery activists to cast her as a political neophyte.  Betty Friedan had also spent time at the Highlander Center.  In addition to fearing redbaiting, she presumably wanted to appeal to women who had not been exposed to radical ideas and settings.  Movement stories, in this view, are strategic bids for public support.

Billboard showing Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School

Knowing the above and understanding the historical context, this intentional construction of a story of spontaneity-to dodge being labeled Communists-struck me as clever.  But it still seemed unfortunate.  As Polletta asks, “Why deny the intentionality that might have served to persuade other people of the ease of mobilization?”

I suppose I figured that this example was particular to the Civil Rights Movement, in a particular historic moment and political culture.  It didn’t occur to me that other strategic leaders in other contexts (including in countries where redbaiting lacked the potency it enjoyed in the United States) might employ this same tactic of making highly planned actions appear spontaneous.  Gramsci suggests that wise leaders should do just that.

In his essay Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership (in his Prison Notebooks), Gramsci clarifies the complicated role of spontaneity in political organizing and collective action.  I connected with his distaste for “political adventurers who argue for it [spontaneity] as a ‘political’ method.”  This language aligns with my negative experiences with activists who believe their ill-conceived “militant” actions-when disconnected from an organizing strategy or a social base of power-might somehow someday magically catalyze a spontaneous mass uprising.

What was new to me, however, is Gramsci’s description of the potential strategic value of leaders and movements intentionally creating an aura of spontaneity around their movements.  Gramsci explains:

The leaders themselves spoke of the “spontaneity” of the movement, and rightly so.  This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity.  It gave masses a “theoretical” consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values…  This unity between “spontaneity” and “conscious leadership” or “discipline” is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.

I find this nuanced argument clarifying and compelling.  It brings together different things I had experienced and impulses I had felt into a more unified theory.  On the one hand, I had felt that popular myths of “spontaneous movements” (like in the case of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott) had limited many Americans’ understandings of the power and possibilities of organized collective action.  On the other hand, when I had experimented with creating an explicit story about collective action in my organizing work with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice, I had mixed results.  The “story of agency” I told was helpful and instructive for a few highly committed young activists to develop their leadership and self-conception.  But most of the people who participated in LCPJ’s efforts were compelled by the historical moment, and had little interest in the nitty-gritty of organizing.  And I started to notice an unintended effect that sometimes seemed to stem from my stressing of intentionality and debunking of spontaneity; namely too much overt attention to my role as an organizer, and perhaps too little sense of ownership from more peripheral participants.

Building ownership is a critical task of grassroots organizing.  Perhaps propagating a myth of spontaneity-rather than resisting it-could have helped to build more ownership from more people in the case of the LCPJ.  In future organizing work, I would like to experiment more with targeting different mobilizing stories to different “tiers” of participants: a story of intentionality/agency for core leaders, and a story imbued with a sense of spontaneity to peripheral participants and broader audiences.

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